It's not a sight you're liable to see that often anymore, at least not in big cities in the northern United States and Canada. A congregation of people gathered by a river, stream, or other body of water deep enough to submerge a person in. Ritual, mass public baptisms in a natural setting, like the banks of a river, are as foreign to most of us these days as the rites carried out by distant cultures in far off lands. Aside from practical matters like finding a body of water clean enough near a major population centre that you'd want to be immersed in it, the whole deal seems like a relic from the past.
Now I'm not saying that full immersion baptism isn't still practiced today, there are too many Christian denominations and sects that see it as an integral part of their practice. However, I can't see it being as wide spread now as it was in the earlier parts of the twentieth century and before simply because people in general don't have the time for such elaborate rituals when it comes to their religion. Now I'm no expert on the matter, but I'd say as the practice was always limited to the Protestant denominations, specifically the various Baptist churches, that the actual number of people who participated in these rituals was always a minority. As times, and people's attitudes towards religion, have changed, I'd think that minority has gradually been reduced.
All of which make Take Me To The Water, a CD of baptismal music and sermons from the first half of the twentieth century released by the Dust To Digital label, as important as it is intriguing. As their name implies Dust to Digital specializes in rescuing pieces of Americana from the dust of history and restoring them as much as possible. In this case they have gathered together old recordings of sermons and music associated with full immersion baptismal celebrations on a CD and reproduced a collection of seventy-five photographs of baptisms from the same time period.
While listening to the music and the various sermons on their own gives you some indication of what these ceremonies meant to those who participated in them, listening to them while looking at pictures of people gathered for, and participating in, baptisms gives you an even deeper appreciation of just how significant these events used to be. While the posed images with everyone standing solemnly facing the camera are an indication of how important these occasions were to people, it's the images of the actual baptisms that communicate the joy experienced by those taking part.
Let your eye wander away from the focal point of those shots, the minister and the person being baptized, and look at the faces of those observing. Their eyes are glued to the action in mid-stream as if it were the centre of the universe. In some of the photos you can even spot those caught up in the throes of ecstasy as they have thrown themselves into the passion of witnessing a loved ones affirmation of faith. Perhaps this is one of the reasons these ceremonies are uncomfortable for us, as we aren't used to open displays of passion when it comes to our religious practices. Compare that scene to the average Christening held in a church in front of the font where the priest or minister sprinkles a few drops of water on an infants forehead. Aside from the involvement of water, the two ceremonies have almost nothing in common.
While the pictures tell one part of the story the twenty-five songs and sermons on the CD give us an even better idea of the passions generated by participating in an outdoor baptism ceremony. It begins right from the opening track with Rev, J. M, Gates, recorded in 1926, leading his congregation in singing "Baptize Me" and introducing it with a sermon about how anyone who is born again needs to be baptized. Aside from the fact that the good reverend is a powerful speaker, it's the sound of those listening to him shouting out their agreement that drives home the intensity of the feelings that are generated during one of those events.
While a great many of the tunes and groups performing them are liable to be unknown to anybody but an avid collector of Americana, there are still some recognizable names among the performers and song titles gathered together on this collection. What collection of early twentieth century gospel music would be complete without a contribution from the Carter Family? This is no exception as they perform "On My Way To Canaan's Land". While they don't match some of the African American choirs in terms of passion, there can be no doubt at the depth of their sincerity when they sing about being "Baptized in Jesus' name."
Both the musical recordings and the pictures in the book show the effects of age as the former are full of hisses and pops, while the latter are stained or even ripped in places. Not only does their condition do nothing to reduce their impact upon us, it gives them an air of authenticity that makes them all the more powerful. Original source material of this nature allows us to experience events without anyone's opinion or viewpoint obstructing our view. It's the difference between reading a history of an event written long after it took place, and reading an eyewitness account of the same incident. What you lose by having a slightly narrower focus is more than compensated for by the vividness of detail generated by its immediacy.
The Dust to Digital label has done a magnificent job of putting together packages that bring very specific periods of the past to life. Take Me To The Water lives up to the high standards they have established with their previous releases. It offers the opportunity to experience, as much as possible without actually being there, the old time public baptisms that were once an integral part of the fabric of life for a great many North Americans. This package gives us all an opportunity to appreciate just what a wonderful thing faith can be, and the joy and pleasure it can bring. That's a lesson we could all stand to learn, as we have somehow managed to twist faith into being weapon these days instead of the celebration it once was. Who says we can't learn anything from the past?